Happy New Ear

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About two million years ago (it seems, anyway – it was actually about four weeks ago but, come to think of it, I could say it was “sometime last century…”), I started writing a column about songwriting. “A fairly simple, straight forward no-brainer,” I thought. “Piece of cake.” But while putting it together it dawned on me that in order to demonstrate some of the principals of basic songwriting, it was important that we covered how to figure out how a song was put together. And this would be terrific because we’d have to go over all sorts of theory and chord structure and stuff.

Okay, so I started writing a column on how to dissect a song, to see how it was put together. But that made me think, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could demonstrate this without the use of TAB? I could show how to figure out a song simply by listening to it off a tape or disc or whatever!” And this would be terrific, ’cause if a particular song didn’t have an existing TAB file, you would at least have the chance to piece it together for yourself. Kind of like the old “if you give a man a fish…” routine.

So I began yet another column on this new (and rather lengthy) subject. And, of course, I realized that this wasn’t going to be very helpful, either, without covering one important point. We had to go back still further to learn something even more basic – how to listen critically to a piece of music so that you’ll be able to hear the clues and cues that enable you to tell what a song is doing structure-wise. And so, barring any more “revelations” (I hope), here is that column.

This may come as a shock to some of you, but it wasn’t all that long ago that there was no internet. No OLGA files. Guitar tablatures were as rare as World Series appearances by Chicago baseball teams. Way back then, music was etched in plastic and eight-track tapes were considered haute couture.

If you wanted to learn a song you had to hope for one of two things – that the song was out in sheet music or that someone you knew knew the song and was willing to show you how to play it.

Otherwise you had to figure out the song yourself. And you did this by listening.

Now, although I hate to say it, not everyone is capable of figuring out music by ear. Just as not everyone is cut out to play an instrument or sing or strum a consistent rhythmic pattern, some folks cannot pick out the clues that enable you to learn a song by listening to it. Believe it or not, there are tone deaf (and just plain deaf) musicians. I met a woman at a party last weekend who used to go out with a heavy metal guitarist. She’d tune his guitars for him because he was not able to do it himself without an electronic tuner. “What if he went out of tune onstage?” I asked. She answered, “He’d never know unless someone told him.” I inquired, “Even if his amp was turned all the way up to eleven?” (you can see why I’m rarely invited back to social events…)

But let me add that more people can develop this ability to listen than not. A lot more. Nowadays, though, why should we? TAB and the internet have pretty much made us all incredibly lazy. I can press a few keys and get all the information I need. Let someone else do all the hard work. It’s the “hard work” (or any “work”) label that puts us off. We have to put in effort and “effort” and “fun” tend to cancel each other out.

Against this argument, I offer one point to you – the more you know the better guitarist/musician/writer/person you may become. It all depends on how you choose to use or not use what you learned. If you choose to learn nothing, then there will be nothing to apply to your playing and there you will stay. As simple as it sounds (no pun intended), knowing how to listen is an art in itself, and it is a talent you can develop. But it will take some commitment on your part. And believe it or not, the results you get from putting in the effort are incredibly enjoyable.

“Let’s Start At The Very Beginning…”

…a very good place to start. Here’s our C major scale:

The Major scale

C Major scale

The first thing we’re going to work on is recognizing intervals. An interval is the distance from one note to the next. We name the intervals according to their place on the major scale. From C to E, for instance, is called a third (okay, a major third – more on that later). C to F is a fourth, while C to G is called a fifth.

From C to A is a sixth. D to B is also a sixth. Do you see this? The starting note becomes your root and B is the sixth note in a D major scale.

But, naturally, it’s not as cut and dried as we’d like to think it might be. How so? We also have to take into account that there are half steps in between the steps of the major scale, as we saw in the article, Theory Without Tears. Let me ask you – what is the interval from C to E? Right, it’s a third. How about C to Eb? Technically, this is also a third, but we call it a minor third. A minor third is a step-and-a-half away from your starting note instead of two full steps. To distinguish between the two types of intervals, we call the “regular” third (two full steps) a major third.

Using this new found knowledge, we can see that D to F is not a third, but a minor third. And E to C? Right again, E to C is a minor sixth.

An eighth, from C to C, D to D, F# to F#, and so on, is called an octave. I’m sure you’re all familiar with that one.

Okay, pick up your guitar and play the open (low) E on the sixth string.

Strike the string again, get the sound firmly in your mind and then strike the A, or fifth string. Listen to the “spacing” between the notes, the distance from the one note to the next, as if they were parts of a scale.

This is a fourth. Now repeat this exercise, but this time use the D and G strings. This is also a fourth (you already knew that). The intervals are the same even though the notes are not. Can you hear the interval? When I first started developing my ear, picking out intervals seemed very hard. I would actually sing “do, re, mi” aloud in order to figure it out. Now when I tune my guitar, I’m still actually “singing” the intervals in my head.

The tricky thing to remember is that wherever you decide to start is “do.” The point is not to recognize what note it is, but what the interval between the notes is. This is a significant difference and I cannot stress it enough. Few people have perfect pitch but just about anybody can sing a scale well enough to figure out the interval from “do” to “la,” “fa” or “te.”

Okay, I can use my guitar to help me to recognize fourths and thirds. Wait. Thirds? Sure, since the G and B strings are tuned to an interval of a third. How about fifths and sixths? Well, I can actually use my guitar to demonstrate any interval. Pick a string. Pick a fret. If you can’t sound it out, write it out (I know you’ve been waiting for that one). If I hit an open A string and then the third fret of the D string (which is F), I have a minor sixth. Try out different intervals and really listen for the differences. With practice, you will find that intervals are very distinct and recognizable, regardless of what key you’re in. Sing a note and then try to sing a fourth, a fifth, or whatever. Test yourself out when you have a minute or two, in the shower, walking to the store, waiting on hold. You can do it in your head. If you take even ten to fifteen minutes a day you will surprise yourself within two weeks. The more you listen the easier it gets.

Majors And Minors – It’s All Relative

Once you’ve practiced on intervals we can move on to chords. Again, the focus is to recognize the type of chord it is and not which exact chord it may be. For the sake of not driving ourselves insane, we’ll concentrate on major and minor chords for the time being and worry about the weird stuff and the really weird stuff at some point in the near future.

I am assuming (and yes, we all know what happens when you assume…) that you know how to make an E chord and an E minor chord. But just in case:

E chords

We’ve already discussed the difference between major and minor chords in Theory Without Tears. It’s simply whether the third is a regular third (two whole steps up from the root, as in a major scale) or a minor third (one-and-a-half steps up from the root).

Major and minor chords

Now take some time and really listen to the difference between the two – there is an entirely different tonality. Now try a few other major and minor chords that you know. A and D are good choices to try. If you usually jam with a friend, test each other – one plays a chord while the other tells whether it is a major or minor (again, it doesn’t matter which major or minor, just whether it’s major or minor). Also, it’s no fair if you can see your friend’s hands. Close your eyes if you have to.

Once you’ve gotten pretty good at this it’s time for the next challenge.

Try playing a G chord followed by the E minor. Again, here are the fingerings:

G and Em chords

Can you hear how similar they are? If we look at the notes that make up the chord, we see the following:

Notes making up each chord

Notice that these chords share two of their three notes. This is because E minor is the relative minor of G major. The relative minor shares the same notes in the major scale, but it’s root is the sixth of the major. Here’s our G major scale:

G major scale

In order to find the relative minor we look for the sixth and make that the root. Therefore, E minor is the relative minor of G major and the E minor scale would look like this:

E minor scale

Now some of you may be already jumping way ahead of the game – “Hey, this makes sense because songs in E minor tend to have a lot of A minor and B (and B7) chords and those would be the IV and V chords and G and C and D would be the III, VI and VII and hey, maybe this is why G scales work well as leads in blues songs in E and wow isn’t this cool?” Yes, it’s all pretty wild how everything comes together. But please be patient for a bit and do a few more “mundane” exercises. Down the road, we will be covering the minor scale (and basic lead lines) in greater depth.

Just as you listened to the difference between the majors and minor, now take some time and hear the difference between a major and its relative minor. To make it a tad easier, here’s a chart of a few major/relative minor keys you can use (but please feel free to make out one of your own, listing all twelve possibilities as a test!):

Major and relative minor keys

The difference is subtle, isn’t it? But it is still a detectable difference. Again, give yourself tests, or, preferably, test yourself with the help of some friends. And again, the object is to tell the difference between major and minor, it is not to name the exact chord.

Familiarize yourself with the tone of the chords. If you stick with it, take a little time each day, listening will become second nature with you before you know it. You’ll be able to hear a song on the radio and say, “Hey, that’s a minor chord. This one’s a major.” You’ll amaze your friends.

Okay, maybe they’ll just look at you like they think you may have been out in the sun just a tad too long. You will amaze yourself.

If you’ve gotten this far, give yourself a big pat on the back (or a good-sized bowl of your favorite flavor ice cream!) and take a deep breath because the hardest challenge is still ahead.

Sevenths Heaven

You may have noticed when I diagrammed the E minor scale that I listed the seventh (VII) as D(#) and wondered why I did that. You may have noticed that I’ve generally avoided discussing sevenths in general. It’s not so much that I’m afraid of them as it is that I’m a bit in awe of them (not to mention that everybody seems to argue about them). They are powerful yet playful, mysterious yet straight forward. We’re going to try to get a bit of a handle on them here in order to work on our critical listening skills.

This will be brief and will undoubtedly raise even more questions. That’s cool because sevenths are definitely a subject to which we’ll be returning for in-depth study.

Part of the problem dealing with seventh chords is the names we give them.

Unlike a major or minor chord where the third is a major or minor third, the seventh chord is a minor seventh unless we specify that it is a major. If I say play an A, you automatically play an A major. If I say play an A7, we automatically add the G note (minor seventh) to the chord. Only if I ask for an Amaj7 will you play the natural seventh (G#).

Each of the sevenths has a very distinct sound. Let’s try a sampling by playing the following:

A chords

And here are the actual notes of the chords:

Notes of A chords

Okay, you should be used to the drill by now – play each chord and listen to the differences. Personally, I’m very enthralled by major seventh chords. They have an almost exotic flavor to them. Even when I’m writing a rock song I will toss a few into the mix to spice things up.

Regular sevenths evoke quite a different response, one of unrest, of unfinished business. They always seem to be leading somewhere else. Can you hear this? In music theory, a seventh is traditionally used to make a transition from the root (or I) to the subdominant (IV). This transition is called a resolution (This is one of those points you should remember – there may be a test later!). Even the use of this term “resolution” implies that a seventh chord is incomplete, that there must be a following chord that will bring it (and our ears) to a final point.

Do you remember our chord chart from the open tuning lesson, the one that shows the main and secondary chords of a given scale? Here it is in the key of D:

Key of D

Now let’s test this out and see how the seventh chord flows into the fourth of any given scale. One really does seem to complete the other. If we’re in the key of D and we play a D7, we’d follow it with the IV, which in this case would be the G chord. Give it a shot:

D chords

Do you hear what a smooth transition this is? Do you want to see why? Let’s look at notes of the chords:

Notes of D chords

You see that the D is common to all three. Now let’s quickly review the D major scale:

D major scale

Okay, if we “rebuild” our G chord so that the D note is on the bottom (or, if you prefer, think of it as building the G chord in the sequence in which it would appear in the D scale), it would look like this:

Rebuilt G chord

Uou can see to go from the root chord (the D) to the subdominant (the IV, or the G) we simply replace the III and V with the IV and VI. When we change the D to D7, it looks like this (and I’ve staggered the notes to read as if they were in the D scale):

D to D7 scale

The G is now surrounded by the F# and A while the B is also surrounded by the A and C. The fact that the F# and C are half steps from the G and B respectively causes the illusion of the “leading” effect. The III and V merge into the IV while the V and VII merge into the VI. It really does sound like the D7 just naturally flows into the G.

Let’s take a little quiz (See? I told you there might be one). If you are playing the following seventh chords, what chord (more than likely) will you use to resolve it?

Sevenths chord quiz

That was fairly simple, wasn’t it? You just figured out what would be the fourth in any of those scales and then you knew that the F#7 resolves to B, the G7 to C, the A7 to D and the B7 to E. Sometimes theory is simpler than math! If you can train yourself to recognize seventh chords, then you will almost subconsciously find yourself learning to pick up the fourth as well.

It’s amazing how this works.

At this time of the year when we’re all busy resolving to do all manner of things, I’d like to encourage each of you (that is, if you really do believe you’d like to get good at this) to spend some time developing your ear. Ten, twenty minutes a day, whenever you’re listening to music, whatever works. Hum a scale and pick out the intervals. When you sit down to play, explore the major, minors and sevenths to see if you can recognize them simply by listening. Again, you don’t have to say, “That’s a C major, that’s a F major seventh…” Simply try to identify the form of the chord.

Now, if you’re listening to the radio (or your CDs), there will undoubtedly be chords we haven’t yet covered. Don’t get discouraged if there’s something you don’t recognize. You will once you learn what it is. And don’t get discouraged if you think it’s taking you some time to develop this skill, after all, you are trying to learn something completely new and that always takes time.

I’d also like to encourage you to read (or reread) Jimmy Hudson’s excellent column, A Study on Intervals, which discusses that topic in greater detail. You’ll also find more on various chords types in both The Power of Three and Building Additions (and Suspensions). And, as always check out some of the terrific articles you can find on our music theory page as well as those on our ear training page.

As always, please feel free to bookmark Guitar Noise for future reference and don’t hesitate to email me your questions – either directly or at the newly revamped Guitar Forums. And now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, it seems I have three more columns in various states of disarray which require my attention…